Title: You Look Like A Cotard
Disclaimer: I played in this world for a long time, but it was never mine.
Summary: Doyle is called to complete a task, but he's more interested in trying to remember what it all means.
Notes: For the Doyle ficathon for roseveare who always did the action and plotty bits when we wrote DI together. I couldn't get the action and plotty bits to work for me, so this one is mostly exposition, with just flashes where the actual plot should go. Well, I had fun anyway!
It was a Saturday when the stranger came to the door, but then again, it was always a Saturday.
It had occasionally occurred to Francis Doyle, in that dim, fleeting way that one thinks of things carefully and thoroughly suppressed, that for a schoolteacher he seemed to be experiencing far too many Saturdays, and that he couldn’t even remember the last day when he actually taught. The thought would flirt at the edges of his consciousness, teasing him with the possibility that it was not quite natural to keep enjoying the same breakfast every morning, walking out into the same sunshine (although he seemed to remember living in a place where it didn’t rain much, anyway) and picking up the same newspaper. The headline never seemed to change, either.
Then Harry would smile at him and take his hand, and he would remember what a lucky man he was, and it would feel too dangerous to question. When the thought occurred from time to time that Heaven should have a bit more variety than this, a little more depth and meaning than the same peaceful day over and over again, he promptly squashed it. He had no reason to be thinking of Heaven. No, absolutely not. It would not do at all to think of himself as being dead.
A stranger had never come to the door before. The newspaper was in the same spot every morning, the same two pieces of mail were in the mailbox every afternoon, and no one else had ever come to the door.
He stared blankly at the first unfamiliar face he had seen in, well, he couldn’t remember how long.
The stranger spoke crisply, with a fading hint of a British accent. “Doyle.” It wasn’t a question. “Good to know that my information was correct.”
“Ah, um, yes, I’m Francis Doyle. May I help you?”
“Actually, yes, you may. You haven’t the faintest idea of what’s going on here, do you?”
“Hmmm, yes, right, that is as expected. I’m going to ask you to come with me, but the explanation won’t make any sense to you until you’re out of here. Don’t worry, there won’t be any consequences for leaving. It was cleared in advance.”
“Uh, that part about not having the faintest idea? Well, yeah. A big check mark on that. Am I supposed to know you?”
“No, you don’t know me. We never met. But we had friends in common. You’ll have to get some distance away from here before you can remember them, I’m afraid.”
“Leave here?” He didn’t understand why that concept flooded him with a sense of helpless dread. “Uh. Leave? Go somewhere that isn’t here?”
“That’s what leaving means, yes.”
“I don’t want to leave. I’m just fine right here, thank you. Besides, well, I know this sounds stupid, and I can’t explain why, but I don’t think I can.”
“That’s because you couldn’t. Now you can, for a bit. I have contacts in high and very low places. Call it a leave of absence. You’ll understand soon.”
“Uh, well …. OK, I guess.”
“Just follow me,” the stranger said, not unkindly, but with a certain exhaustion of patience, and walked away.
Doyle stared after the stranger for a moment, then glanced back at the door of his home. Something tugged at him, but he couldn’t put a name to it.
He took one step, and then another. He followed, trailing a short distance behind the stranger along the sunny street of identical houses, although he still wasn’t sure why it was that he felt he should.
Some odd sort of time later –
“Got it!” He yelled, and sprinted for it, carrying something wrapped in cloth that did not quite succeed in disguising what it was. As he dashed down a street that was darker than any street had a right to be, hearing the sound of feet – no, make that hooves – way too close behind, and as he twisted down another alley that seemed to go nowhere at all, he wondered -
Why was it, again, that he had gone out that door and followed after this wanker Pryce in the first place?
He couldn’t identify one clear moment when he had remembered any one thing. It was more like getting wet, and losing track of what it felt like to be dry. The farther away from his house they walked, the more uneasy he became, and yet he couldn’t quite turn back. It was something about – no, that couldn’t be right – wait, that must have been a dream – wasn’t it?
He blinked, and then realized that he was standing still. “Oh. Sorry.”
“Beginning to come back to you, is it?”
“Something is. Probably just a nightmare. Odd, though. Don’t know how long it’s been since I last had a drink.”
“Keep moving, Doyle. We have safe passage, for the moment, but it’s often best not to push one’s luck.”
They walked further, and the streets no longer looked like his street. Bizarre images were filtering into his mind, soft but still unpleasant, like dust falling and piling up, sticking in the corners of his thoughts. He pushed the – images? Memories? Dreams? - away, expecting them to hurt in some physical way. They didn’t, not in the way that he expected, and yet they did hurt, all the same.
That sinking sense of not being real, of not being alive, was getting to him again. Doyle touched the stranger’s shoulder, and found himself vaguely surprised that he could.
“Hey. We’ve been walking one seriously long time, man. Time to stop for a drink?”
The stranger gave him an odd look, then nodded. “We’re far enough now for me to start filling you in.”
At once they were standing in front of the open door of a friendly-looking pub, although he wasn’t sure if he had noticed it before that. There were a few steps down, and then they were inside. The place smelled good, right, welcoming somehow. It smelled like he belonged here.
They were settled in, with glasses in front of them, and he was savoring the taste of a “home and away” which he hadn’t enjoyed in so long that he’d forgotten it even existed, when the stranger started talking. “Doyle, the entities that currently employ me have authorized me to borrow your services for a short while – “
“Hey, whoa there. It’s third grade I teach, you know, not grad school. Want to start over?”
“You haven’t been a teacher for a number of years, Doyle. By now you may be able to remember the firm that I work for. It’s called Wolfram and Hart. Does that name bring anything back for you?”
“Wolfram and Hart? Evil law firm? Seems I’ve heard of it, yes, not sure how, though.” The knowledge seemed to float in his mind, unconnected to anything. “What does that have to do with me?”
“They’re quite a bit more than that, but that’s a start. You’re remembering at least something of your former life. Let’s see what else might be coming back to you. Do you recall finding something that had been hidden, something called the Gem of Amarra?”
Doyle frowned, and took another gulp, remembering – but not. It couldn’t be a true memory, more like a memory of a dream, because that whole “shift to demon and smell it” thing, well, it wasn’t something that could actually have happened. Could it?
“I think I dreamed or maybe hallucinated something about that, one time, but – “ he laughed, shaking his head a little. “Must have been some the worse for wear, because it was like I wasn’t even human.”
“Good. You’re getting there.”
“Getting where? Because I’m thinking it’s most likely a place I don’t want to go.”
“It can’t do you any more harm, Doyle. It has already happened.”
“You say I’ve never met you. What did you say your name was, again?”
“I didn’t, but you may call me Pryce.”
“Price? As in, what does that have to do with the price of – ?”
“With a ‘y,’ actually. And yes, there is more to it, but that is all you need to know.”
Doyle said slowly, “I don’t have the first hint of a clue who or what you are, but I’ve got a feeling I’m supposed to be able to tell. I’m supposed to know. Now why would that be?”
“Because you aren’t human, Doyle, not quite, and you formerly knew many things, enough to make you useful. Wolfram and Hart stores those who may be useful.”
“Stores?” He noticed the stranger, Pryce, looking annoyingly amused and self-satisfied, noticing which word he repeated, and which ones he didn’t – but he wasn’t going to change the question, not yet. “What do you mean, stores?”
“The place you were, when I came for you, is a holding area. It’s a sort of limbo, I suppose – Heaven for some, Hell or Purgatory for others, as I understand it, but even without daily torture, it’s ultimately still a holding cell.”
“A holding cell for the dead, you mean?”
“Oh, not only for the dead. There are some of the living stored there as well.”
“That’s a relief.” Doyle laughed and took a long swallow of his drink. “I thought that you were trying to tell me that I’m dead.”
“Well, actually, yes, you are – as am I. It’s a surprisingly common condition.”
Doyle coughed and spat half a mouthful in Pryce’s general direction.
Pryce leaned back, out of the range of that sad waste, brushed off his sleeve fastidiously to remove a few stray drops, and went on: “I suppose that we shouldn’t be so surprised, since out of all of those who have lived throughout history, those still living are an extremely small minority.”
“Now that is the looniest bit of seeming sanity I’ve heard in as long as I can remember.” He shook his head again, laughing. “Are you the one who’s gone in the head, or is it me?”
Around another corner, clutching his prize, then halfway up something that might have been a fire escape, in another place and time – no idea what it was in this place, except cold and slippery, and with only one hand free to climb, he couldn’t get too far -
Catching his breath for a moment, Doyle decided: “It was definitely me.”
He’d found himself looking at a picture of the object that he was assigned to fetch for Pryce’s shady-in-more-ways-than-one masters. For a talisman of some sort, intended to block psychic energy, it looked entirely too ordinary. It would have seemed completely out of place in any occult shop or goth-wannabe gathering. It looked more like something one’s grandmother might wear when company came calling. He asked again, “Why me?”
“I’m told that you were good at finding things – what some call ‘objects of power’ – and you once had visions of the future. That makes you well suited to this task.”
“Ah yes, those. I’m starting to remember those now. Thank you – not. They were better left forgotten.”
“Well, the visions are not your problem any more. You passed them along to someone else.”
He blinked, slowly, trying to focus on a face he was beginning to remember. “Did I? Didn’t think I could get rid of them, as long as I lived – oh, yeah, right. Someone else?” Frowning, he reached for the name, and found it. “Cordelia …. “
“I gave her the visions? I don’t recall. How is she, then?”
“She’s dead, too,” Pryce answered bluntly. At Doyle’s shocked look, he amended, “Dead, but not entirely gone. No more than we are. And if it’s any consolation to you, the visions that you gave her did save her life, and mine, and Angel’s as well, many times before they finally didn’t.”
“Oh. And – Angel? Is he – ?”
“Same as ever.”
“Ah. Well.” Still dazed, he muttered, “Good to know that some things don’t change.”
Cornered, pressed against a brick wall, unable to climb without dropping what he’d come so far to find, he tried to shrink into the shadows, to disappear. What was the good of being dead if you couldn’t vanish?
And then they went on past him, and he realized that he could. Surrounded by the shadows, he was actually blending into them, unseen, unsensed.
Now, THAT was something he couldn’t have done while he was alive. There were advantages to this, after all.
The oddest thing was how comfortable that thought was becoming.
“So, how long does it take to get accustomed to walking around, being dead?” Doyle asked, glass in hand, with task safely completed.
Pryce answered with a sad half-smile. “That depends on how you look at it. In some ways, not long. In others ….”
“Well, it’s flat-out feckin’ weird, ain’t it? How’s it for you?”
Instead of responding directly, Pryce put on what Doyle had already come to recognize and name as his “professor look.”
“Psychiatrists have described a phenomenon called ‘the Cotard delusion,’ or ‘Cotard’s syndrome,’ in which individuals who are walking, talking and appear to be quite obviously alive, remain stubbornly convinced that they are dead. I have often wondered how many of those sad creatures who were believed to be the victims of intractable mental illness might actually have been in a situation not unlike yours … or even mine. However, there is a significant difference between your status and my own.”
“And what is that, besides the fact that I don’t quite recall everything yet?”
“My state of continued existence is the result of a contract, made on my behalf without my knowledge but later ratified by my consent, to which I am bound beyond death. You are not under contract. You still have some freedom of choice.”
“What kind of contract is that?”
“Those who are useful to Wolfram and Hart remain useful, as long as they can be preserved with all skills and faculties intact. Therefore, the loss of useful skills and knowledge to death is an inconvenience for which they can, to some extent, compensate. As it happens, the phenomenon fails rather dismally when a very large number of Wolfram and Hart employees die at the same time, but – “
Doyle interrupted, “And you’re an employee, you’re saying?”
“Yes, I am. You, on the other hand, have been called only to a specific task, which is now complete.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means you can go back, Doyle – to holding – until your talents are needed again. Or – “
“You might be able to move on.”
“Move on? As in – – ?” Doyle pointed upward.
Pryce nodded solemnly. “It’s possible. I don’t know how long it will be before you receive another assignment, and I can’t even guarantee that you ever will. You can go back to holding and wait until you’re needed, or – “
“Or I can, as they say, find a light and move toward it?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Hmmm. Well, I don’t know. I do have to admit that this has been a bit of fun, for all of the weird. I wouldn’t mind doing it again. Y’know, I might even find myself looking forward to it.”
“You won’t remember, once you go back.”
“Not while I’m there, no. I get that. But next time? I’ll be able to remember our little chase around the city?”
“As far as I know.”
“Then I’ll spare you the tired old phrase and just tell you that I won’t be out looking for that light quite yet. Besides, it was rather sweet, waking up every morning with Harry, once again.”
“I’ll bring you …. home, then.”
“Yes, I’d rather call it that, than the other. Home.”
It was a Saturday when he came home to Harry after his little adventure. But then again, it was always a Saturday.